10/09/2013 02:33 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

If I Hadn't Been Treated for Depression, I Wouldn't Have the Life I Have

When I was teaching journalism at the College of Charleston several years ago, I was contacted by an employee with the public affairs office of the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. He wanted to make prospective journalists and broadcasters aware of the stigma attached to the mentally ill that's perpetuated by the media.

I invited him to talk to one of my classes. I had a professional and personal interest in this. I suffer from depression.

The speakers in my class that day included a psychiatrist who worked with the mentally ill, a social worker who had long suffered from mental illness and the parents of a young man with bipolar disorder who had dropped out of school and gone to jail before being treated.

I told a friend who also suffered from depression, that I wished someone had talked to me about mental illness when I had been in college. He said he doubted it would have made any difference. It might not have made a difference to him, I said, but it would've mattered to me.

I had suffered from depression as long as I could remember. Six-year-olds shouldn't think about dying. But I did. Intuitively I knew there was something wrong with me. I just didn't know what it was or what to do about it.

That's changed.

October 10 is National Depression Screening Day. I wish there had been a day like this when I was younger. Perhaps I wouldn't have lost so many years, so many decades, to depression. If I'm asked to describe what it's like having depression, I mention a 1990 Tom Hanks movie called Joe Versus the Volcano. In the movie, the Hanks character, Joe Banks, has been told that he's suffering from a terminal disease called a "brain cloud." As he learns, there is no such thing as a "brain cloud."

But there is. It's called depression.

When I'm depressed, a cloud obscures my feelings of self-esteem, hope and optimism. I feel hope drain from my brain as the internal pressures intensify. This is what happens when too much coolant drains from a nuclear reactor as the internal pressures intensify. When the melting point is exceeded in a reactor, there is an implosion -- a meltdown.

This happens to people, too. People commit suicide because depression steals their hope. They don't think tomorrow will come.

Through counseling and medication, I've learned to recognize and adjust to the feelings of doom. I've learned that tomorrow does come, and tomorrow usually brings hope. If things don't get better tomorrow, they get better the next day. Things almost always get better. It took me a long time to learn this.

I am 55. I was nearly 40 years old before I was first treated for depression. If I hadn't been treated for depression, I would not have the life I have. Before I was diagnosed with depression, neither my relationships nor my jobs lasted. I've been married for 13 years and I have an 11-year-old son. I've changed jobs once in the last 15 years. I'm a very lucky person.

All my successes, such as they are, have come in the last 15 years.

"We have two lives," novelist Bernard Malamud wrote, "the life we learn with and the life we live after that."

I didn't start living until I learned I had depression. My life became a lot better when I learned I could live with depression.

Chris Lamb is a professor of journalism Indiana University University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. His latest book is Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball.

For more by Christopher Lamb, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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